Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Watching The Phone Ring

On Facebook recently, I put in my status, “It used to be that only seniors took several rings to answer the phone because they had to get to it. Now, with call display, it takes time for everybody to pick up the phone while they decide if you're call worthy at that moment!”

It seems to be that as technology advances, we become more insular. In urban settings gone are the days when you would sit on the stoop, talk to the passers-by, gather the gossip of the neighbourhood and sometimes even receive strangers at your door.

Nowadays we don’t want strangers showing up. When was the last time you opened the door to find a salesman peddling his wares? Not even Girl Guides venture through the neighbourhood with cookies and the Avon lady is seen less frequently than Bigfoot.

Even I’m guilty of this. If you ring my doorbell unannounced and I look out the window and don’t see a mail vehicle, UPS truck or a six foot Publisher’s Clearinghouse cheque, it’s a pretty safe bet that you could die of natural causes on my porch before I emerge from the cocoon that I call my home.

Yet ironically, the Internet has allowed us to become “friends” with virtually anybody on the planet. If you let them into your life, people will tweet you, poke you, IM you, like or unlike you, and insist you watch yet another video of a cat playing the piano (God I hate poking and Lord, I hate cats)! I have several thousand friends on Facebook, hundreds of followers on Twitter, yet I probably couldn’t pick any of my neighbours out of a police line up.

In our busy world technology has managed to bring us all together globally yet separate us more regionally, which brings me back to the telephone.

I’m not old enough to have lived through the heyday of the party line, when telephones were the audio version of Facebook and everybody in your area would be part of your conversation. However, I am old enough to remember the days when our phones were only indoors. To use the rotary structure you had to be tethered to the base unit, which itself was tethered to the wall (assuming you didn’t have a unit that was already on the wall).

And if it rang, you usually made an effort to get to it quickly. You didn’t have only a few rings before the call vanished into some magical device that collected the information in a chronological order. If the caller was persistent, they could let your phone ring until the cows came home.

Today, we have call-display, call-waiting, call-answering and a plethora of other services that allow us to determine if a caller at any given time is worthy of getting to the next level of importance on your personal relationship hierarchy. Meanwhile, you sit on the other end wondering if you’re going to get an answering machine at two rings, four rings or five rings, all the while mentally auditioning the message you might leave as you wait for the beep, like a nervous track runner who’s afraid of the sound of a starter’s pistol.

And speaking of auditioning, for some there is even another hoop to jump through. Not only will some folks read their call display before they answer the phone. There are those who will let you start your message, determine the quality of your call and jump in to pick up the phone before you finish. Yes, the dreaded answering machine screeners, technology’s answer to the burning question, “gee, I’m too poor to have an actual underling gatekeeper, but I’m still important enough to need one.”

While there is no need to pounce on the phone when it rings like a potential prom date waiting to be asked out, I do see a need to perhaps pick up the pace a little bit. Because, as our population ages and you become the senior citizen who has to take a lot of time to get to the phone, if you add to that the time for your aged eyes to focus on the call display, eons will have gone by. And, if the person calling you is also getting up there in years, perhaps by the time you answer, they might have forgotten who you are and why they called.

That’s the Stuph – the way I see it.


  1. About 20 years ago, my parents bought a country house near St Agathe. The only phone line we were able to get was a party line shared with 5 neighbors. Each one of us had a seperate ring, it was so annoying, especially when you had to make an urgent call and someone was sitting and yacking for an hour.

    I got my first cell phone at 16 after some nutcase chased me in his car for hours. Since then, I find myself checking the call display when someone calls and making a snap decision on if I'm going to answer it immediately or wait for it to go to voicemail. I answer most calls. When it goes to voicemail, and the person leaves a message, I will always call back. But most people don't.

    I have a friend who has voicemail but never activated it. He said he has call display, he doesn't need voicemail. Go figure.

    What do you think Alexander Graham Bell would think of the progress of his little patent? Do you think he'd be happy or horrified?


  2. Amen to every last word here, Peter. Every time I write about technology, I find myself wondering why these ever more advanced tools that are supposed to bring us together are, in fact, pushing us apart.

    I think we're so enamored of the capabilities baked into new technologies that we forget to appreciate the subtle-yet-fundamental ways they can isolate us. I need to think about this some more, but I'm glad you laid it out so clearly, as we now have a perfect place to start.

  3. I really like this new world of ours. Today, you choose your friends not by how close to you they live, but because you actually have things in common with them. Even if they live on the other side of the globe. Today you respect your neighbours by letting them live their lives in peace instead of trying to get to know every little detail of their lives. Today you have a place where you can find the solitude you need, the world ends at your doorstep. Yet you only have to get online (whenever you want to do so) and you talk to all your friends. Life in the big modern city is wonderful. Unfortunately that life doesn't seem to have found it's way to the rural places. Sadly I live in a rural town now. I miss the big city.

    Philippe Bernaerts

  4. Nice piece Peter, and oh so true! I rarely answer the phone, and all my friends know it. A journalist friend in Montreal stopped coming to visit me many years ago because I had a rotary phone which wouldn't allow her to punch in the code to retrieve her voice mails. These days I search for holiday places where my phone screen says "No Network." And yes, I'm in the info business!

  5. You have just solved a great mystery for me! My 86 year old grandmother is always missing my calls to the voicemail even when she is there and then she would call me back seconds later. She would always claim she wasn't near the phone , so I bought her a wireless so she could have it close by her no matter where she found herself...same problem..common factor ..both wired & wireless phones had call display .
    Conclusion : my slow moving Granny screens her calls;

    George G.

  6. I am glad that they didn't have call display when I was a teenager...would have taken all the fun out of making a prank phone call. My neighbour had 695-3006...so we always called up asking for Boisvert TV at 695-3007. There used to be plenty of errors in the old Bell white pages...such as listings for "Ron's BA" on Cardinal in Dorval even 20 years after it was bulldozed to make way for a KFC...or "Maple Leaf Cabins" on Cote-de-Liesse (around where Bonaventure Rink is)...so we would phone these numbers and ask for their service...if a Bell manager called us and said we were making prank calls, we pointed to the listing in the book, and he would go away.

    I have plenty of online friends that I have never met, but enjoy meeting up with some as I travel. My Facebook friends looks like a reunion of the 1987 CFTO Toronto newsroom, or a step back to the 1980s in Montreal media (I even have the cutest anchor -- IMHO -- in the history of Toronto television as a FB friend).

  7. I answer during the day when I'm home alone, but in the evening never, it's never for me; and I must scream up or downstairs to the party concerned.
    My 15 year old can get 6 calls in a row.
    Therefore, my phone rings continuously all evening.

  8. Peter - a fine "the Way we Live now" piece! although I think I second what Philippe Bernaerts said above - there are advantages to this new world of ours. And I monitor every call, if call waiting doesn't tell me who's calling, because of all the terrible phone salespeople calling to sell me things i don't need. i keep getting a call from home repair companies, and heating and cooling companies -- and I live in an apartment! I couldn't buy their damn service and products if I wanted to!

  9. I sort of have to answer the phone since my kids have called me from g-d knows where saying they've gotten lost on their bike, or got off at the wrong metro stop and can't figure out where they are.
    And neither can I.
    Maybe I should just let it ring so they resort to 911 and get a ride home in the back of a cop car.

  10. Having been a classmate of yours, Peter, I know exactly what you mean. I remember those lovely days when the phone rang 8, 9, up to 12 times... and you sometimes got to it running into the house from the garden, and sometimes not. Lost to the ages... or til the caller called back. Simpler, easier, more carefree. Miss those times; love these times.

  11. Ahhh yes... technological advancements. More phones, wireless, cellular; and then we get ourselves on a "do not call" list so we can get fewer phone calls. We'll talk on skype , we'll send text messages but won't answer the dreaded phone. I'm the other way. I don't text. I call. You can't read vocal inflections, tone, speed or pitch. But You can hear it. I screen calls by accident mostly... With 2 kids in the house it's involuntary screening because I'm looking for one of the cordless handsets. Which can usually be found where one of the kids was last seen or heard. All 4 of the dreaded handsets...

  12. The generation before mine would always answer the telephone; it was probably considered rude to leave it ring.

    The only exception (which was pretty frustrating for the caller) was if one would leave the phone "off the hook" and stick it (the receiver) under a pillow due to the nasty beeping that would occur after awhile.

    Of course one only did this when one didn't want to be bothered as back in the day, the phone would ring until the caller lost patience unlike today, it usually switches to voice mail.

  13. I love that my 98 year old grandmother always answers the phone promptly every time I call. My sister, on the other hand, can take 3 weeks to return a call and always starts by saying "I got your message..." Really?
    Eventually I think we'll come full circle and you'll be able to "poke" people directly in the frontal cortex... and get their attention immediately. My sister is the first one I'll try to suggest the implant for. My GM will be spared, no doubt.

  14. I don't agree with the implication that the old days of communication were necessarily better. Back in the early days of the telephone, I'm sure there were older people who kvetched "what happened to going over to someone's home, or sending a telegram?".
    The tools of communication have improved vastly and it's really up to the individual to utilize them well. If someone is bad at returning pokes, he would have been bad at returning beeper pages twenty years ago.

  15. Peter -- you are so right on. ROFL on the dying on the front step from natural causes - I'll call first. And the auditioning -- I just commented on fb about pitching consulting clients --same thing. Once in a while prospects want to meet in person but most of the time email or linked in messaging or texting. Hard to convey my enthusiasm for their brand/company via text only so many emoticons I can use :) Love to have you as one of the VIP experts in the upcoming book I'm producing called HEART OF SUCCESS launching Labor Day weekend -- I'll send you info via email and then call you next week. Or once you get it email me back at joyceschwarz(at)gmail.com or call me (YES)310-822-3119 follow me on twitter @joycecom

  16. I always screen my calls and never open the door for strangers!!!!